Show strength on weaknesses

2nd September 2005 at 01:00
Inspectors will be impressed by an efficient strategy for tackling a school's weaknesses, says Philip Schofield

All over the country, schools are gearing up to meet the new self-evaluation requirements of inspection. Consultants and advisers are running around encouraging headteachers to identify the things their schools do well and support their assertions with evidence. It seems far less attention is being given to the other and often far more important aspect of the process - the weaknesses.

One naive headteacher said to me, in confidence of course: "My strategy is to blind the inspectors with our strengths so that they don't notice the weaknesses." Oh dear. Such an approach reveals a fundamental weakness in itself. A headteacher who is unwilling or unable to identify weaknesses and do something about them is heading for disaster.

A weakness is not a failure. It becomes a failure only if you ignore it or do nothing about it. The acid test is always:

* Are you aware of the causes, symptoms and effects of the weakness?

* Have you put something in place that will help to overcome or lessen its impact?

* Is what you have put in place having an effect and improving the situation?

* Is the educational and personal welfare of the children at the heart of the actions you are taking?

There may be a weakness in your school, but the actions you have taken to overcome it may show strength of purpose and commitment to improving the quality of provision for your pupils. In short, you cannot afford to be complacent about things that are not going well if you want a successful school.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the school's dealings with incompetence, which is the root cause of so many weaknesses. The days of inspectors reporting the existence of a policy on the management of incompetence and disciplinary matters and moving on have gone. They will be more concerned with the implementation of policy and its effect on the school's performance.

This does not mean they have the right of access to confidential information about the performance of an individual. In fact you can, and should, make explicit in your policy documents the extent to which access to such information is restricted.

What is more likely to happen is that, through observations, the inspectors will become aware that the performance of an individual is below expectations and is having a detrimental effect on the education provided to the pupils. They may ask you whether you are aware of the situation and what steps you have taken to improve it. They will correlate this with your policy.

I have come across many situations where a headteacher is aware of poor performance but finds all sorts of excuses to avoid tackling it: "She's done it that way for the past 20 years"; "It will be hell in the staffroom if I confront him about that"; "The children love her - the fact that they are not learning anything has nothing to do with it"; "Poor chap - he has a wife and a dozen children to support".

Sorry - this is not good enough. At the end of the day, however sympathetic you feel towards the individual, if the children are suffering, you have to act.

This does not mean launching straight into informal and formal procedures.

It certainly does not mean you need to become confrontational. I have always worked on the assumption that every individual has the potential to improve. If they don't improve to the required standard, then I have a duty to help them through the process to retain their dignity and move on to something more suited to their talents.

The first step is to make the person aware that you have concerns about his or her performance. Look around the problem to try to establish what is causing it. It may be lack of training, difficulties in managing behaviour, poor teaching technique or subject knowledge, or circumstances outside the school that are impairing performance. Agree strategies that will help overcome these problems with realistic targets and completion dates.

Don't make it one-sided. Explain to the individual the commitment you and the school are making to help overcome the problems. Explain that your overriding concern is the welfare and well-being of the children. Celebrate the small steps taken towards achieving the targets. A word of praise for something completed on time goes a long way.

Check regularly, not only that progress is being made, but also that the school is honouring its commitment to the individual. Only if progress is unacceptably slow or not to the required standard should you move to formal procedures.

If you explain this approach to the inspectors in broad terms without going into the detail of particular cases, believe me, you will win their respect and praise.

Philip Schofield is a consultant specialising in school leadership and management. He can be contacted at

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